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‘Twas the morning of Christmas, and in the U.A.E., Etihad’s mainframe was glitching, releasing fares (almost) for free…If you were lucky enough to nab one of those amazing Etihad mistake fares last year/month, congratulations on acting quickly! To save you time on researching what to do in the Middle East carrier’s hub city of Abu Dhabi, new TPG Contributor Adam Erace gives you the skinny on what you’ll need to know about exploring the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Located an hour and a half down the coast from Dubai, Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates comprising the U.A.E., a one-time pearl trade-post composed of dozens of little islands—some natural, others man-made—clustered along the Arabian Gulf. Whether or not it’s your final destination, you’ll definitely be spending some time here; connecting returns from Hong Kong, Johannesburg and the Seychelles (three of the mistake fares) all appear to have six-hour layovers. Fortunately, Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) is well connected to downtown and the beach, sitting just west of these areas on the mainland and easily accessible by public transportation and taxi. For about $20 USD, a flat-rate cab will bring you downtown in about half an hour, and less at night, when the majority of Etihad’s U.S.-origin flights arrive.
Despite a planned freeze on hotel licenses in 2012 to stem the oversupply of rooms in Abu Dhabi, new luxury properties continue to open, adding to the emirate’s inventory—and keeping rates affordable. At the new waterfront Rosewood, for example, base-category “deluxe” rooms with suave chrome-and-copper interiors and views of the Arabian Gulf are going for $175 on the weekend of February 13th; upgrade to a junior suite for less than double. The business-chic Hyatt Capital Gate, sheltered in a tilted, braided steel skyscraper that makes the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s posture look good, is even less, at $167, and Starwood’s Le Royal Méridien is only $109.
With rates this low, Abu Dhabi is the place to earn, rather than redeem, points. Consider The Ritz-Carlton, a 447-room Renaissance palazzo that opened in March 2014 on 57 waterfront acres of the city’s “Grand Canal.” You’ll find a palatial pool, camel-milk mixologist and rooms starting at $259 for the same weekend—really low for a Ritz. This property would provide a great opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of your Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card: paid stays of minimum two nights earn a $100 resort credit and Club Level upgrade. So for two nights before tax, you could pay $419 ($518 minus $100), which would be even less once you factor in the value of complimentary Club Level swag (Ritz-Carlton puts out some of the best Club Level spreads in the industry). Plus you’d earn 5x points on the stay for 2,095 points, a nice way to pad the 140,000-point bonus Chase is currently offering.
You’ll pay a little more ($290) at Abu Dhabi’s other Hyatt property, a beautiful Park Hyatt whose whitewashed bungalows are arranged like chess pieces along the resort’s wadi-style turf lawns and environmentally protected beachfront of Saaydit Island, but this Category 5 hotel requires only 20,000 points a night. Compare that to the Ritz, which is less expensive but costs more points (40,000 a night). Abu Dhabi’s second St. Regis, which opened August on the ritzy Corniche—the original is on Sadaayit—is an even better value; Starwood ranks it a Category 5, meaning a posh $380 cinnamon-toned room is just 16,000 points a night.
Abu Dhabi’s restaurant scene brings Vegas to mind: glitzy multi-outpost giants ensconced in entertainment complexes, luxury hotels and condo towers serving interchangeable menus of expensive Italian seafood, high-wire sushi, and steaks that could make a Texan blush. Of the crop, the slick, wood-and-leather Zuma izakaya restaurant at the Galleria mall pulled a Best Newcomer Award from Time Out Abu Dhabi for its shiso-buttered lobster, yuzu-truffle sea bass and caviar-crowned beef sushi. At the InterContinental’s long-running Fishmarket, diners “shop” iced displays of snappers, prawns, crabs and more to be prepared by Thai chef Sawai Jampakaew, while Australian Wagyu steak frites is the move at Entrecôte Café de Paris, a replicated French bistro at the SOUK mall across the canal from the Ritz; the golden sauce for which the place is named is so top-secret, it has to be flown in from the original restaurant in Geneva.
What’s more difficult to find in Abu Dhabi is legit Emerati cuisine, something Shaikha Al Kaabi is trying to change with her Meylas food truck. She’s exposing visitors to sweet fritters called legimat, sandwiches on rgaag flatbread, and other dishes native to the capital. Stay tuned to Meylas’ social media outlets, as the brick-and-mortar version of the truck should be open in Al Raha later this winter.
The action in Abu Dhabi is concentrated on a central, wedge-shaped island anchored by the 82-dome alabaster Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, where up to 40,000 faithful can worship beneath (and tourist can ogle) the main prayer hall’s twelve-ton, 24-carat gold chandelier. A marina-fringed grid of green parks, stately embassies, expat communities, luxury malls, universities, golf courses, paintball zones, equestrian tracks and vertical hotels spread toward the turquoise sea, terminating at the Corniche, the emirate’s facsimile of a European seaside promenade—think Nice’s Croisette with fewer crepes and more skyscrapers. As the sun sinks, the grand boulevard is the place in Abu Dhabi for a sunset constitutional.
The eastern terminus of the Corniche connects to the Sheik Khalifa Highway onto Saadiyat Island, a shark fin-shaped atoll being developed as Abu Dhabi’s cultural haven. Saadiyat will be home to the much-publicized outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums when they open in 2015 and ’17, respectively, and 2016 will see the opening of the architecturally stunning Zayed National Museum, whose galleries will be housed in solar thermal wings inspired by the feathers of falcons, the U.A.E.’s avian mascots.
For now, Saadiyat is sunbathing central, with a protected belt of sugar-sand beaches that shelters nesting Hawksbill turtles. If you’re not staying at the Park Hyatt or St. Regis, you can buy day passes to the chichi Saadiyat Beach Club and hang with the cabana-and-Champagne set, or rent loungers at the family-friendly Saadiyat Public Beach.
Following the highway on its loop back to the mainland, you cross onto Yas Island. While Saadiyat is for culture and beaches, Yas is for entertainment and thrills, like the world’s fastest roller coaster (Ferrari World’s Formula Rosso), largest surf-able sheet waves (at Yas Waterworld) and white-knuckle race-car experiences at Yas Marina Circuit, an F1 track straddled by a color-changing Viceroy hotel.
The adventures only mount as you head away from the coast: caving and man-made whitewater rafting at Wadi Adventure in the oasis town of Al Ain; dune bashing in desert outside Liwa; sand skiing the slopes of the Empty Quarter; camel safaris in Al Khaznah. You can stay overnight in the desert at fairytale Arabian Nights Village or Al Badeyah Desert Camp and fall asleep beneath a non-light-polluted sky full of stars.
Did you manage to snag a Etihad mistake fare that will take you to Abu Dhabi? If so, please share your plans with us in the comments below.
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